05 April 2018

"Staging Our Native Nation"

Article 5 & 6

[I’m posting Articles 5 and 6 together here, and I think you’ll find they inform one another somewhat.  Of course, I feel that all eight of the AT articles in “Staging Out Native Nation” inform one another, so as always, I encourage Rick On Theater readers to go back and read Articles 1 through 4 (if you haven’t been keeping up with the collection) since they each tell a different story of theater by America’s indigenous peoples.  The series on ROT started on 24 March and each succeeding post followed at a three-day interval.  ~Rick]

by Rob Weinert-Kendt

[“Every day we walk obliviously over the bones of our land’s Native forebears,” feels AT editor Rob Weinert-Kendt,  “like imperial Romans over Etruscan ruins, driving Jeep Cherokees to Chipotle for a bowl of quinoa.”  Whether we live out west, in New England, or among the urban cliffs of New York City, America’s native heritage is all around us and right under our feet.  (I live on an island called Manhattan, a Native American name, as observed in Mary Kathryn Nagle’s play Manahatta.)  The emerging American theater of the country’s indigenous people, the original inhabitants, is giving that heritage a voice and an artistic presence on stages all over the country now.  It’s been what this series has been all about, of course, but it’s also an important development in the theater of our nation, native and immigrant.]

Our nation’s Native history is all around us, if we would only pay attention. One place to look: at a rising generation of Native theatremakers.

Like most Americans, I grew up in a graveyard where the names of the dead could hardly be said to have been left unrecorded: More than half of U.S. states have Native American-derived names, and in my home state of Arizona (from a Pima/Papago word for “small spring”), my grade schools bore the names Hopi (an extant Arizona tribe) and Hohokam (an ancient Native culture of the Southwest). I now work on the island of Manhattan, a name derived from the Lenape language, and on summer weekends I and my family frequently head for the beaches at Rockaway, named for a Long Island tribe.

But these place names are at best phantoms, palimpsests; the indigenous cultures they signify have been largely obliterated, along with the vast majority of the continent’s original population. Every day we walk obliviously over the bones of our land’s Native forebears, like imperial Romans over Etruscan ruins, driving Jeep Cherokees to Chipotle for a bowl of quinoa.

Perhaps more bluntly indicative of the long-tail legacy of European-American genocide and erasure is the name of an arterial thoroughfare that runs near my childhood home in Phoenix: Indian School Road. Its namesake was a notorious fixture of downtown Phoenix, a military-style boarding school, in operation from 1891 to 1990, in which young students culled from several Arizona tribes were ostensibly educated in trades and vocations but in reality were stripped of their distinctive cultures and languages and exploited as cheap labor as they were frog-marched into a spurious “assimilation.” Not coincidentally, in the mid-20th century, the U.S. government’s Indian Relocation Act “encouraged” Native Americans to move to urban areas and train for jobs in the mainstream economy. The net effect: More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas rather than on reservations.

The boarding schools have mostly closed, replaced by a network of tribal colleges and universities with a more Native-centric ethic. The combination of an increasingly urban demographic and a resurgent Native consciousness means that a new generation of educated, essentially bicultural Native Americans has emerged within and alongside mainstream culture, with a new relationship to their embattled heritage and justifiably raised expectations about their place in the larger U.S. culture and body politic. Today Native Americans are leading activists and politicians, authors and athletes—and, as a number of stories in this issue demonstrate and celebrate, makers of theatre, where a cohort of playwrights, directors, performers, and producers are reclaiming the narratives of the past, reflecting their complicated present, and redefining their future.

In so doing they are also reminding us of the heritage we all share on this stolen continent. Artists like Larissa FastHorse, DeLanna Studi, and Mary Kathryn Nagle—building on the pathbreaking work of such veteran Native artists like William Yellow Robe and Muriel Miguel—are giving bodies and voices to the vestigial markers many of us drive by without a second thought. FastHorse, who encourages all theatres to do a “land acknowledgment” before every performance and meeting (and not only of Native-themed events), will soon bring this reclamation project close to home, or to my hometown, anyway: She’s teaming with the University of Arizona to adapt her 2016 Cornerstone play Urban Rez, about Southern California’s urbanized Native population, to Arizona’s 22 tribes, for a spring 2019 debut. Cornerstone will then take the show on the road, courtesy of a New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) touring grant, adapting it to indigenous communities around the country, and earning the play its new title, Native Nation. Land acknowledgment, indeed.

[Rob Weinert-Kendt is also the author of “Raising Native Voices, Then Amplifying Them,” Article 4 in this series, posted on 2 April.]

*  *  *  *
by Frances Madeson

[Kim Delfina Gleason, artistic director of Albuquerque’s Two Worlds, a Native American theater and film company, was pregnant when Frances Madeson met her to write “A Meeting of Two Worlds in New Mexico,” below, and both Gleason and Madeson would say it was a “pregnant moment” for America’s native theater all across the country.  “Meeting” is a brief profile of Two Worlds and serves as something of a paradigm for the emergence of native theater at this moment in American theater history.]

A fledgling theatre company in the Land of Enchantment tells Native American stories with both authenticity and imagination.

Pregnant with hope, pregnant with possibility, and just plain pregnant, on Jan. 25, the very night before Two Worlds artistic director Kim Delfina Gleason was due to give birth to her first child, she hosted a monthly table reading at the 12-year-old Native American theatre company’s offices at New Mexico Community Capital in Albuquerque.

While the baby rumbled his soliloquy of intention to join his parents and the vibrant ensemble of Native theatre artists and community members his mom has so devotedly served since 2009, Gleason photocopied scripts, made a fresh pot of coffee, and taped a sign on the street door directing newcomers to the conference room—her swollen belly floating before her, balloon-like, as she moved through her paces.

As participants filed in, some of them seeming almost magically well suited for the multi-generational roles in Zee Eskeets’s drama Fadeaway being read that remarkable evening, Gleason greeted everyone warmly, handing out scripts and gently assigning parts. Some of the readers were complete tyros, curious strangers who’d seen an event notice on social media or who’d been encouraged to attend by a therapist at rehab, while others, like playwright Jay B. Muskett, whose play The Weight of Shadows will be produced by Two Worlds in June, were already part of the Two Worlds family.

“The community kept asking me what’s next, what’s the next show, pushing me to not give up,” Gleason said about her commitment to Two Worlds over the years. “People are asking a lot more, ‘Tell me what happened at Wounded Knee—let’s hear the stories.’ They need Native theatre to exist; really, it depends on me.”

Two Worlds was founded in 2006 by James Lujan, currently the Chair of Cinematic Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, to professionalize the pool of Native actors available for hire in New Mexico’s bustling film industry. But when Gleason assumed the helm at Lujan’s request three years later, she realized there was no purchase in continuing to play savages and princesses, no matter how skillfully.

“I was done playing the poor little Indian girl who can put a feather in her long hair,” Gleason said about her own acting career. “Terry Gomez of the Comanche nation was writing powerful monologues for Native women, big characters. That’s what I wanted—I wanted to see more of that, and more contemporary stories in everyday settings. We’re real people, and not all of us have the same situations. We want to tell our own stories authentically and we don’t want the white society to tell our stories.”

Eskeets, a graduate of University of New Mexico’s MFA Program in Playwriting, wrote Fadeaway while working toward completion of her degree. Her third full-length play, it’s an imaginative rendering of the real life events surrounding Navajo high schooler Brooke Spencer, a basketball player whose layup won her team in Gallup, N.M.—the Lady Bengals—the state championship in 2006. The college-bound athlete was slain by her on-again, off-again boyfriend, just days after her family’s high school graduation party celebrating her achievements. The grotesque murder stunned the Navajo nation and hit Eskeets particularly hard: the 18-year-old Spencer was her cousin.

“I couldn’t go to her graduation party because I had to work,” Eskeets recalled. “Three days later on the front porch steps of my grandma’s house . . . [.]” She trailed off at the mention of the setting where Spencer was knifed by the boy, who is set to be released from federal prison next year.

Eskeet struggled with the first iteration of Fadeaway, as she tried to write it from the Brooke character’s vantage point. Ultimately she scrapped the 100-page script because she didn’t want the play to seem “victim-y”—and rewrote it from the murderer’s perspective.

“I hate that guy—I hate him with a passion,” she explained. “But writing the character I started to like him; I don’t know if empathize is the right word. I felt so bad for this guy who has nothing going for him except this girl. He’s in his prison. He loves this person so much, he’s never going to be able to say he’s sorry. I was crying as I wrote the murder scene at 5 o clock in the morning.”

The play received a university production in 2013 and “got standing ovations every night, people coming up to me in tears,” Eskeets recalled. She said Spencer’s mom told her: “That’s exactly how he was; I didn’t think anything like that would happen.”

Eskeets has hopes the show can be produced in Gallup, with Gleason directing. It’s not a far-fetched idea: As Two Worlds board member Lee Francis explained, touring productions to reservations, border towns like Gallup, and pueblo lands in New Mexico to engage Native audiences is very much a part of the company’s vision under Gleason’s leadership. Francis, who is the CEO/publisher of Native Realities Press, which produces indigenous comic books, is focusing his board participation on networking relationships to create an abundance of audience support in New Mexico’s most populous city.

“This is not Orlando, it’s Albuquerque, which should be the hub for this kind of work,” he said. “This is where we should be represented. Natives comprise 10 percent of the state’s population, and that level of support would be a game changer.”

Francis celebrates the current resurgence of interest in the work of Native theatre artists, but as a watchful observer of American pop culture, he said he’s seen these cycles come and go—one in the 1970s, another in the ’90s.

“It’s still at a fragile place,” he said about the current moment. “The press tends to gravitate around the same names, but excellent Native actors and playwrights are popping up all over the place.”

Places like Mexican Springs, N.M., a Navajo community north of Gallup, population 1200, that playwright Jay Muskett calls home—a place he’s fled and returned to, a muse of a place that stirs his imagination like no other he’s found so far. Since 2013 Muskett has lived on his reservation in a hogan, writing every day, composing dozens of plays.

“Playwriting has saved my life,” he said. “It filled the hole I had always felt. It connected me back to my own culture. It helped me put two and two together. I finally understood why ceremony and performance are still important, especially being Native American.”

Like Eskeets, Muskett acknowledges the trauma of his people and lives with a sense of responsibility to tell their stories.

“There’s a lot of trauma on the rez, and people don’t really have the outlet to get things off their chest,” he explained. “In my writing, I don’t steer away from the bad things that happen to people.”

As Gleason put it, “We don’t have to pretend.”

For all its willingness to face uncomfortable truths, Two Worlds also loves to present fantastical works featuring zombies and other chimerical beings. In response to a recent call for 10-minute plays centered on the theme of Blue Corn, one submission was a sci-fi script, a delightful surprise.

“Plays were submitted by writers with six years of professional experience to no experience,” Gleason said. “We’re gearing up to bring on the new generation.”

In August Two Worlds will present a staged reading festival of three full-length plays, to be directed by film directors who want the chance to direct for the theatre. “They can find it to be a little intimidating—there are no second takes,” said Gleason, clearly relishing the differences between the two worlds of theatre and film.

She’s also hoping to stage a Native/Hispanic Romeo and Juliet and is keen to find ways to work with the increasing number of Native playwrights who are now approaching Two Worlds to stage their work. A black box features prominently on her near-term wish list, but her ultimate dream is a fully professional Equity theatre. Toward that aim, she’s been building her business skills and seeking resources to move forward, including attracting a strong, skilled board who wants nothing more than to help take her where she wants to go.

Lee Francis sees a bright future for Two Worlds under Gleason’s leadership.

“Our audiences aren’t coming because it’s an an exotic version of Native life; our shows are neither niche, nor novelties,” he said. “They’re coming because it’s good theatre, because they’ll experience solid performances, and engage in theatre that is not predicated on Western ideals for engagement.”

Like so much in Native country, progress is a marathon, not a sprint.

“I push little by little, year by year; we’ve been planting the seeds and people have been helping us grow more,” said Gleason, her hands resting lightly on her middle. “It takes so much energy, so much passion and dedication to see yourself fail and fail and fail. It’s only pushed me harder to make us exist. When doors keep shutting on us, I tell myself there’s going to be that one door that will open.

“It’s been so hard at times, there have been moments when I wanted to walk away. But then I’ll come out from backstage, and some woman will have tears in her eyes, our show affected her so much, so personally. That opens my eyes anew, changes my perspective of what I can do towards making a change for my community, which I’ve always wanted to do. Sometimes you have to sacrifice to keep that hope alive, because maybe that’s all they have.”

[Frances Madeson is also the author of “Indigenous States,” Article 2 in this series, posted on 27 March.

[The last two articles in “Staging Our Native Nation” will be posted on 8 April.  Please log back onto ROT to read the final two parts of the AT series—and be sure to read the foregoing four articles.  I remind you, too, that at the end of Articles 7 and 8, I will be posting a list of resources for native theater in the U.S., published by American Theatre as well.]

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